Linux and touch
All the fuss in the technology industry right now surrounds touch technologies. Mobile phones have it, tablets have it and, very soon, many laptops and desktop PCs will have it, courtesy of Microsoft’s move to Windows 8. But what about Linux?
There are moves afoot to embrace touch technology. Some time ago, Canonical introduced touch-compatible window sizing in the form of “love handles”, and the Unity front-end looks as if it’s moving in the right direction. The launch buttons that run down the left of the screen are large enough to be comfortably tapped with a finger, and the Dash is similarly accommodating.
Without drivers, your distro won’t detect taps and gestures at all, and you’ll be stuck with a physical mouse and keyboard for input.
Other distributions are now adopting a similar approach. Fedora’s modern desktop offers a similar layout to that of Ubuntu, with a column of large application launcher icons running on the left side of the screen and a grid-based scrolling application launcher with finger-sized icons. In theory, it should be possible to operate either distro using a touchscreen. In practice, however, it isn’t that simple. First, this assumes that working drivers have been developed for the device in question. Without them, your distro won’t detect taps and gestures at all, and you’ll be stuck with a physical mouse and keyboard for input.
Even if drivers exist, touch-based control is unlikely to be a satisfactory experience. Scrolling and zooming gestures may well work in OS windows and core applications, as they did on our test tablet, a Samsung 700T, on which we installed Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. However, it isn’t enough to simply add scrolling and panning support. For a smooth touch experience, the core GUI furniture – the close, minimise and maximise buttons, for example – also need to be finger-friendly. No Linux distro we’ve tried so far offers this.
A good onscreen keyboard is critical too. Ideally, it should appear automatically when editable fields are tapped and disappear when appropriate, and it has to be responsive, too. Ubuntu has a keyboard called Onboard preinstalled. It works to a point, appearing and disappearing as necessary, and repositions itself depending on where text is entered on the screen.
However, while typing in a standard document works reasonably well, we found entering addresses and search terms into Firefox highly frustrating. The problem is that the keyboard doesn’t play nicely with the autocomplete dropdowns, which suggest terms as you type. As soon as a menu pops up, they grab focus from the keyboard and you have to tap the keyboard once to transfer focus back, then tap a key to enter a letter. This epitomises the way touch works, or rather doesn’t, on Linux.
Far more successful than touchscreen operation is Linux’s support for multitouch touchpads. Apple was the first firm to do this right with its large, buttonless touchpads and intuitive gestures for scrolling, application switching and more.
In this respect at least, Linux has usable hardware support. Many of the distributions in our Labs test this month picked up the multitouch touchpad on our main test laptop, providing two-fingered scrolling in the web browser and menu lists, complete with smooth kinetic animation effects.
Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora and openSUSE all had the feature switched on by default, and with openSUSE, we could even customise gestures, allocating a desktop switch command to upwards and downwards two-fingered swipes. By default, a three-fingered tap in Ubuntu brought up the finger-sized “love handles”, used to resize windows.
In short, it would seem that Linux has yet to fully embrace the world of touch-based gestures and OS control. Some elements work but, in a similar fashion to Microsoft’s pre-Windows 8 attempts to embrace touch, many don’t. This isn’t surprising – with few touchscreen PCs in consumers’ homes right now, there’s little incentive for (often poorly resourced) open source developers to focus on touch interfaces. Once they become more widespread, however, the nature of open source development means that it won’t be long before touch-optimised versions appear. Indeed, it’s already on the roadmap for future versions of Ubuntu.
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